Ian Davies's Reviews > Shadow Work

Shadow Work by Ivan Illich
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This collection of essays shows how the social conditions for living independently of the market were destroyed in order to make way for wage labor and shadow work.

The book calls for the recognition of shadow work - the unpaid complement to wage labor - as a key aspect of 'economic progress' (which is defined as the substitution of wage labor for other kinds of work, together with the rearranging of the environment and the redefinition of human needs to encourage consumption over subsistence). More profitable than wage labor and equally alienating, the ideal type of shadow work is housework (the 'organisation of compulsory consumption'). It also includes commuting to work, dealing with bureaucracies, doing homework for school, and all other standardised and managed aspects of our lives, which in effect tie us to the market by contributing nothing to our independence from it while sapping our time and energies. In the absence of any subsistence activities I expect even resting, as preparation for wage labor, could be called shadow work.

Illich describes how language was first colonised through the promotion of a standardised 'taught mother tongue' over the vernacular. He takes this to be the paradigm of human dependencies today, and so refers to the inverse of the shadow economy as the 'vernacular domain': 'So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernisation of poverty.' With this lens to look through, the book's given me a better appreciation of how interesting history can be. In one essay on the philosophy of science (relevant to the creation of tools for subsistence) he introduces us to the views of a little known 11th Century monk, and in another we learn how forced labor for the poor became the norm rather than the punishment (with beggars being rounded up for the workhouses). We also see how work was divided into 'productive' and 'non-productive' kinds for men and women respectively, through specious appeals to biology, anthropology and so on. This was the key to economic progress: disestablishing women and enclosing them in the home, paving the way for wage labor and shadow work to replace subsistence living.

A lot's changed since this was written 30 years ago, however these ideas still seem extremely relevant today.
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message 1: by Brandon (new) - added it

Brandon " I expect even resting, as preparation for wage labor, could be called shadow work."

Wouldn't that render the term basically meaningless by being too inclusive?

Anyways, good review. I intend to read this book all the more now.

message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Davies hi, thank you very much for the compliment, it's kind of you to say that and I'm glad to hear it!

Yes you're right, I probably am stretching its meaning to the limit by saying that. It's interesting to think about what Illich would and wouldn't have considered 'shadow work' though and I may have to re-read some of the book myself to see if I can grasp it any better!

Where I was coming from with that comment however was that, for instance, if people migrate to cities and work long hours, then for many of them there may be little to be gained (in the sense of increased independence from the market) from paying rent for a bed and sleeping on it for a few hours each night so they can re-charge just enough to go back to work in the morning! Whereas in other situations, where there's ample time allowed for it and a wider context of subsistence, then rest and relaxation could perhaps be seen more as a time for reflection and the making of plans and so on, and even for the sharing of one's self that builds bonds and reciprocal relationships in a community.

Anyway, thank you again for your comment, it's good to hear that someone else finds it as interesting as I do! I hope you enjoy the book if you do read it.


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